How Not to Solve the Gun Problem: Lessons from the Streets

gunsAfter the shooting in Oregon, an interesting phenomenon has developed in America: We’re getting too tired to talk about gun violence. With each mass shooting, there seems to be less crying in public, less pause and shock, and even less debate about what to do next.  The unthinkable is seeping its way into everyday reality. Both the pro-gun and gun control activists can do little more than repeat on autopilot their worn-out party platforms. Listening to our President’s speeches on the subject, his frustration is less controlled with each incident.

Here’s the problem: Both solutions fail to restore community, rendering them ineffective.

Brother Jim and I watched three teenagers grow up in my time working with Brothers and Sisters of Love.  The group began with basic theft and rebelliousness. As they got older, the stakes got higher.  One of the group was badly beaten. And then, someone’s brother was shot. What was the reaction? The group acquired a gun, both to protect themselves and to dominate their turf.  One of the three teenagers, now a legal adult, is behind bars with a murder charge. He got there from a flawed but understandable mindset: he felt he needed a gun because his opponent had a gun. He felt the world would not protect him, and he needed to be stronger, have more authority, and be more powerful.

We fail to realize that the street gang mentality of armament is identical to the argument that we should arm teachers, movie theater workers, and citizens far and wide with guns in America to “protect ourselves.” With a gun, it is assumed a person will become equal or more powerful than their potential enemy.  At best we end up in a cold war scenario where no one can be trusted and everyone remains suspicious.  That’s what happens on a good day walking with Brother Jim.  Whenever we approach a new street, the atmosphere is tense, and the neighbors question if Brother Jim is an undercover cop, all eyes on our every move.  At worst, we end up with Chicago’s current murder rate.  Arming a large population of the streets with a gun created that murder rate. Now, the pro-armament party would claim here that they would only give guns to citizens without records.  Gang members also started without records. Specifically, young boys and women without records are initiated and used to commit crimes on gang leaders’ behalf.  They had clean records until they needed to defend themselves and reclaim (or claim for the first time) their power. Gangs exist because their members took matters into their own hands when no one else would solve the problem for them. Acting as if every man and woman must protect themselves because no one else will causes us to the pull the trigger more, not less.  Fear and isolation created the streets. Isolating ourselves behind deadbolts and stockpiling weaponry in fear will have the same effect.

On the other side of the equation, activists claim that gun control will solve our country’s problem by limiting access.  A reporter from Germany spent one summer walking with Brother Jim and I, and one of her missions was to see how easy it was to acquire a gun. Before the afternoon was over, she had several options, and one was even presented in front of her before she could blink.  She was pressured to purchase one quickly, by the very people who lost family and friends to gun violence, in the name of profit.  Time and again as we walked the streets, people who would be found clean after pat-downs with the cops just minutes before could be seen packing heat in a moment’s notice when a threat presented itself. Legal or illegal, guns are everywhere.  If someone truly believes they need a gun to keep themselves safe, they will find the way to acquire one, no matter the law. Fear, and from that fear the need to dominate, dictates gun ownership more than legality. America is too far down the road of excessive gun production combined with a powerful and profitable black market to eradicate them from our everyday lives. Barring a miraculous sense of safety and good will between neighbors, the idea of a legally dictated gun-controlled America is far from realistic. First world countries with successful gun-control laws did not start in the same scenario America finds itself in.

When a reaction involves further isolation or restriction on the perpetrator, it will not help the situation.  Brothers and Sisters of Love lives by the Biblical value that love casts out fear. The inverse is also true. Love is given up quickly to fear, and fear casts out love. I live in a neighborhood that is gentrifying and middle-class do-gooders run with their baby joggers past dilapidated houses surrounded by cops.  The middle-class wants to interact with the poor, and most work in “safe” structures to do so through non-profits and organized community outreach programs, but also call the cops for every minor disturbance, buy home security systems, and build extra high fences. They love the idea of providing food for their neighbor, but they spent significantly less time breaking bread with them when it is not on their terms, or in their control.  Our instinct is to love, but fear stops us in our tracks. We value privacy over community, and security over connectivity. Those we block out with our privacy and security become angry. That anger builds, and will lead to violence, until those wounds of loneliness and deprivation are healed. Genesis tells us “It is not good for the man to be alone.” This can refer not only to marriage, but applies to isolation from community. It is within our own heads that we create the idea that we cannot trust others and that the world is meant to harm us. It is not our original instinct, nor God’s will for our lives.

When we reconnect to humanity, we remember the opposite—what we need to survive is each other, not the extra security laws or the guns. Until we can realize the worth of everyone in the community, victim, perpetrator, and in between, we will continue to face these acts of violence.

–Megan Cottam

About Brothers and Sisters of Love

The Mission of Brothers and Sisters of Love is to be a visible sign of Jesus’ Love, Peace, and Presence to the poor in gang-infested neighborhoods in Chicago and to be a bridge between gangs & the poor with the Church. This is done by: 1. Loving everyone 2. Trusting in God 3. Forgiving everyone everything 4. Never being afraid.
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